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TELEVISION REVIEW

Horror goes full bore in 'Desperation'

The phrase "question authority" could have been designed with Collie Entragian in mind. A small-town sheriff in ABC's "Stephen King's Desperation," Collie represents authority run horrifically amok. He has the power of his cop's uniform, but the temper of a cagey devil. He pulls over innocents traveling through the Nevada town of Desperation and humiliates them -- if they're lucky. If they're unlucky, they end up with pencils in their eyes, or similarly gruesome evidence that they did not die peacefully.

As portrayed by Ron Perlman, Collie is a convincing menace, and for the first fourth of this three-hour movie, which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 5, he provides some compelling viewing. Perlman turns his possessed cop into a vaudevillian from hell, hyper and jokey as he frames his victims for pot possession, then imprisons them in the Desperation jailhouse. He goes on insane pop cultural rants at them, and then he punctuates his madness with physical tics and by mysteriously exclaiming ``Tak!" at odd moments. Throughout, the cameras aim up at him, turning him into a looming giant.

But Collie is the only worthwhile business in ``Desperation," which falls into an endless lull once he's no longer the center of attention. The movie slips into an overly detailed explanation of the evil force that has taken hold of Desperation, and it loses its coherency along the way. Written for the screen by King, ``Desperation" further squanders its potency with ecological messages and religious symbolism that flatten the action even while they try to deepen it.

The tourists thrown in jail include a Christian boy named David (Shane Haboucha), who urges God to help them prevail over the Goliath of a demon that's on the loose. Will God help David and the others smite the evil? The more the script pushes its stock questions of faith, the more cerebral the movie becomes. And cerebral isn't a good thing when you're talking about horror.

The other characters aren't as ethereal as David, but they're equally uninteresting. Tom Skerritt has a few good moments as an egotistical writer; Steven Weber is familiar as his cynical assistant; and Charles Durning is a local veterinarian who is also an alcoholic. They aren't much more original than their descriptions here. And on occasion, they're oddly undisturbed by what's happening, as they discover body after body and they see animals taking over.

They're in Desperation, but it looks like they were hijacked to Dullsville.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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